Editorial | Speaker Holness should reconsider
If you didn’t know better, it might be assumed that Juliet Holness, the Speaker of the House, was erecting ramparts because there is something to conceal.
Or that Speaker Holness’ style is like an old-fashioned, mechanical toy which once wound-up and sent on its way doesn’t divert. Or perhaps in Thatcheresque terms, the lady’s not for turning.
It is hard to find other rational explanations for Speaker Holness’ intransigence in refusing to make public, including to members of House, the opinion of Attorney General Derrick McKoy, on how reports to Parliament from the Office of the Auditor General and the Integrity Commission ought to be handled. Presumably, those opinions helped to shape Ms Holness’ recent ruling on the subject, which has remained contentious with the parliamentary Opposition as well as anti-corruption and pro-transparency groups in the society.
In contrast to her stance with respect to Dr McKoy’s opinions, she has released those by the chief parliamentary counsel, Lee-Andria Wilson, which make significant references to the attorney-general’s conclusions. Government members of parliament say the difference is that while Ms Wilson is the counsel to Parliament, the attorney-general works for the government. Or, as the information minister, Robert Morgan, put it, the AG’s analysis and findings are for the government, “not an opinion for the Opposition”.
This is notwithstanding the fact that when the former speaker, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, requested Dr McKoy’s opinion, she did so in the face of a vexed Opposition response to delays in tabling of reports and disagreement over how such documents should be dealt with.
The convention of Parliament used to be that reports, of whatever kind, from the auditor-general and the IC, of whatever kind, were tabled forthwith. But earlier this year some from the auditor-general remained in limbo for weeks and others from the Integrity Commission weren’t made public with the usual dispatch.
In the wake of questions about the delays, Ms Dalrymple-Philibert argued that reports from the auditor-general had to hang around for two months to allow the minister with responsibility for the audited entity two months to review the document and prepare responses to the findings. With respect to those from the IC, they would go first to the commission’s parliamentary oversight committee to review before being tabled in the House. Her decisions, Ms Dalrymple-Philibert said, were grounded in legislation, which had previously been bypassed by Parliament.
Based on Ms Wilson’s document, the attorney-general appeared to hold that with respect to reports from the auditor-general the question of whether they faced the two-month hiatus before tabling depended on under what section of the Financial Administration and Audit Act the audit was done.
Ms Wilson’s own determination, which drew heavily on the Public Bodies and Management Act, was that audits of all public bodies (semi-autonomous institutions that are not government ministries, departments and agencies or executive agencies) were subject to the eight-week ministerial review period before tabling.
Ms Holness’ ruling, which she emphasised was in keeping with the law and Parliament’s standing orders, was largely in line with the interpretation of the parliamentary counsel.
Notably, Ms Wilson, though, described the attorney-general’s opinion on reports from the IC “as fulsome in its analysis and I am in complete agreement with his analysis therein”.
Her conclusion was the law did not set out a procedure for their handling by Parliament, so “reports from the Integrity Commission may be submitted to the Integrity Oversight Committee either before or after tabling in Parliament”.
ESTABLISH OWN RULES
Parliament, in the circumstance, is at liberty to establish its own rules. And in the absence of specifically formulated guidelines, the speaker determines how matters are handled.
Ms Holness’ declaration was that reports from the IC’s director of investigations (which generally have to do with corruption-related complaints), as well as reports commissioned by Parliament will be tabled as soon as possible after they are received. The latter reports, she said, were likely to “require a quick action of the members of the House of Representatives”. The reports, however, would first be reviewed by the officers of Parliament.
On the other hand, the commission’s annual reports, and any special reports, would first go to the oversight committee, an approach that critics say could be manipulated to slow down public scrutiny of these documents. Indeed, that committee would have up to 30 days before it begins its review of these documents and there is no stated time between their receipt by Parliament and formal transmission to the committee.
This newspaper errs on the side of openness and transparency. It is why we still urge Speaker Holness to rethink her stance and return to the old convention.
She should also change her mind on releasing Dr McKoy’s opinions, from whose presumed lucidity the parliamentary counsel no doubt benefited. The public would, too.
Further, given the context in which the opinion was elicited, the government members of Parliament should also abandon their nonsense that the attorney-general’s opinion was for the government only. He works for all Jamaicans.
No one, of course, expects ministers to go around waving every bit of advice they receive from Dr McKoy’s chambers. But in this case a public interest matter, advice on which Ms Dalrymple-Philibert requested not in some private and personal capacity, but on behalf of Parliament, which she publicly disclosed from the speaker’s chair in the midst of a debate.
The request wasn’t secret. Its outcome shouldn’t be. Its public availability would enhance public discourse and debate.